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Full text of "An early American translation of the Adeste Fideles"



Records of the 
American Catholic Historical Society 



Vol. XXVIII 



December, 191 7 



No. 4 



AN EARLY AMERICAN TRANSLATION OF THE 
ADESTE FIDELES. 



BY RIGHT REV. MGR. H. T. HENRY, LITT. D. 



Some years ago W. H. Grattan Flood, K.S.G., the noted 
Irish hymnologist and musical antiquary, contributed to a 
prominent Catholic magazine published in Philadelphia * an 
article on the Adeste Fideles, in which he claimed an Irish 
authorship for the translation beginning with the words: 
" With hearts truly grateful " : 

English words were adapted to the hymn about the year 
1825, and another version was given by Father William Young, 
of Dublin, in 1840, printed with the music in the Catholic 
Choralist (Dublin), in 1842. As Father Young was regarded 
as a saint equally with his brother, Father Charles Young 
(whose life has been charmingly written by Lady Georgiana 
Fullerton), many readers may be glad to see this specimen 
by his translation, given with the music on page 712. 

And on the indicated "page 712 " of the magazine, under 

1 Flood, Notes on the Origin of the "Adeste Fideles" in The Dolphin, 
Decemt>er, 1005. 






3£ ' 



290 American Catholic Historical Society 

the heading, "Adeste Fideles. [1842]. Sung each day from 
Christmas till the Octave of the Epiphany at Mass, Vespers 
and Benediction ", Dr. Flood prints a transcript of the 
melody with the words of the first verse placed under the 
notes : 

With hearts truly grateful, come, all ye faithful, 

To Jesus, to Jesus in Bethlehem. 

iSee Christ, your Saviour, heavVs greatest favor, 

Let's hasten to adore Him, 

Let's hasten to adore Him, 

Let's hasten to adore Him, our great Lord. 

The parenthetical date of 1842 is doubtless an insertion 
made by Dr. Flood. The music given is the traditional 
melody of the hymn. The first verse of the English trans- 
lation belongs to that which is found most commonly in our 
American Catholic hymnals, with the exception that the 
American form of the hymn closes the verse with " our 
God and King " instead of " our great Lord ". 

In my first quotation from Dr. Flood's article, the 
authorship of this translation is given without hesitation to 
Father William Young, of Dublin, and the date assigned to 
the translation is the year 1840. From what I shall have 
to say of this attribution of authorship and assignment of 
date, one may fairly conjecture that the first printed appear- 
ance of the translation in Ireland was in the Catholic 
Choralist issued by Father Young in 1842. 

Dr. Flood's assignment of date as of the year 1840 can be 
immediately rejected, for I have found the translation in 
several Catholic hymnals published before the year 1840 in 
the United States. The earliest of these is Hymns for the 
Use of the Catholic Church in the United States of America. 
A New Edition, with Additions and Improvements. Balti- 
more: Printed by John West Butler. 1807. In this little 
volume of 112 pages the four Latin stanzas are followed 
by the five stanzas of the English rendering (pages 33-35) : 



An Early Translation of the Adeste Fideles 291 

With hearts truly grateful, 

Come, all ye faithful, 

To Jesus, to Jesus in Bethlehem. 

See Christ your Saviour, 

Heavens (sic) greatest favour. 

Let's hasten to adore him, 

Let's hasten to adore him, 

Let's hasten to adore him, our God and King. 2 

Unless we ascribe to Father William Young a youthful 
precocity like that of Alexander Pope or Alfred Tennyson, 
we may with equal confidence reject the claim for his 
authorship of the translation; for in an article contributed 
by Dr. Flood to The Month for January, 1916, 3 we find 
that Father Young was born in 1795 and that he " wrote 
numerous hymns and translations, to be found in his Cath- 
olic Choralist (1842). Of these a few are still sung in 
Catholic Churches . . ." (page 16). According to this, the 
lad would be only twelve years of age when the Baltimore 
hymnal of 1807 appeared. 

Now, in thus rejecting the specific claims set forth by Dr. 
Flood, it is with not a little hesitation that, in the title to 
the present paper, I have "staked a claim" for an American 
authorship of the translation. My reasons, however, are 
these : 

(1) Dr. Flood, who has been for many years searching 
not alone the highways, but as well the byways, of Irish 
musical history, and who has published several learned vol- 
umes and many articles in connection with his researches, 
seems to have been unaware of any rendering of the Adeste 
Fideles into English verse before the year 1825. " English 
words were adapted to the hymn about the year 1825," he 

2 Some of our hymnals do not print all the five stanzas. It is un- 
necessary to give them here, however, as they may be easily found in 
The American Catholic Hymnal edited by the Marist Brothers and 
published by P. J. Kenedy & Sons in New York in 1913. 

3 Flood, Ireland's Contribution to English Hymnody, pp. 36-41. 



292 American Catholic Historical Society 

remarks in his article contributed to The Dolphin. He 
wrote this in 1905, and of course he would modify the 
statement very considerably to-day. But it is clear that, 
having made many " Notes " on the origin of the hymn 
and of its melody, he was, in 1905, unaware of any version 
of the hymn into English before the year 1825, so far as 
his study of Catholic hymnals or prayer-books published in 
Ireland could inform him. As our translation nevertheless 
appeared in 1807 — eighteen years earlier than the date set 
by Dr. Flood — we may fairly conclude that it is most prob- 
ably not of Irish origin. 

This conclusion is strengthened by other considerations. 
The Latin text of the hymn was known in Ireland about the 
same time as in England or in Scotland. The Latin words 
cannot be traced back further than about the middle of the 
eighteenth century. They are found in a manuscript in 
Stonyhurst College, England, authentically dated 1751; in 
another preserved in Euing Library, Glasgow, authentically 
dated 1750; and in still another, until recently preserved in 
Clongowes Wood College, Ireland, apparently undated, but 
doubtless written about the same time as the others. In Eng- 
land alone, apparently, was the hymn translated into the 
vernacular at an early date. If it was sung at all in Ireland, 
probably it was sung only in Latin. One might safely infer 
this from the fact that Bishop David published his edition 
of the True Piety, or, the Day Well Spent at Baltimore in 
1809 — two years after the Catholic hymnal had been issued 
in the same city. The True Piety, however, gives the Easter 
hymn (O Filii), but not the Christmas hymn (Adeste), 
although both are equally unliturgical. It would seem that 
Bishop David desired to stick pretty closely to his original, 
namely, the edition of the True Piety which had been pub- 
lished at Cork in 1797, and which, says Finotti (Biblio- 
graphia Catholica Americana, p. 100), "only forms the 
groundwork of the much enlarged American edition ". 



An Early Translation of the Adeste Fideles 293 

Despite this enlargement, Bishop David did not include the 
Adeste Fideles. 

In an edition of the Augustinian Father Gahan's Manual 
of Catholic Piety, which was published in Dublin in 1839, 
only the Latin text of the Adeste Fideles is given. 

Thus the True Piety (Cork, 1797) and the Manual of 
Catholic Piety (Dublin, 1839) seem to throw some light on 
Dr. Flood's view that no early translation of the hymn had 
appeared in Ireland, and also explain, perhaps, his attribu- 
tion of our translation to Father William Young as author. 

(2) Excluding Ireland as a probable source of our trans- 
lation, we next turn to England. Here we are confronted 
with most abundant information in Dr. Julian's Dictionary 
of Hymnology. Despite his wide study of English hym- 
nals, Dr. Julian can find no earlier source of our translation 
than a Catholic hymnal published in Washington in 1830, 
and mistakenly places it amongst those " not in common 
use ". It seems therefore reasonable to exclude England as 
a possible source of our version. I can conjecture no reason 
for supposing that Scotland or Wales could offer more 
promising results, and accordingly, by this process of ex- 
clusion, I am forced to consider that our version is of Amer- 
ican origin. 

(3) There are several weighty reasons for supposing 
that our translation first appeared in print in the Baltimore 
hymn-book of 1807. So familiar are we with the " most 
Christmassy " of hymns, both in its Latin text and in one 
or other of its English versions, that we find it difficult to 
realize either that the Latin text is not very old or that the 
widespread use of the hymn is comparatively recent. Our 
modern hymnals commonly give the Adeste Fideles as a 
popular but unliturgical Christmas hymn, and similarly fur- 
nish us with the O Filii (either in Latin or in English trans- 
lation, and not infrequently in both Latin and English) as 
a popular but unliturgical hymn for Easter. Our earliest 



294 American Catholic Historical Society 

American choir-books and hymnals, on the other hand, ap- 
parently do not know the Adeste Fideles at all, but are 
scrupulously careful to furnish the singers with the O Filii 
in its long English translation of twelve stanzas. It may 
not seem in any way startling to us to find the well-known 
" With hearts truly grateful " dating back to the year 1807. 
We might fancy it as common to the various Primers, Eve- 
ning Offices of Our Lady, or Divine Offices, or combined 
hymn-and-prayer books so much used by our Catholic for- 
bears in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth cen- 
turies. A student of hymnology like Dr. Flood, however, 
found its appearance in a hymnal issued as late as the year 
1842 sufficiently striking to make him ascribe it to the com- 
piler of the hymnal, the Rev. William Young, of Dublin. 
It is going a long way back in American Catholic hymnody 
when we find our version in the hymnal of 1807. It is not 
given in Benjamin Carr's Catholic choir-book, published in 
Baltimore only two years earlier ( 1805), which nevertheless 
contains what is apparently a Protestant version (" Hither, 
ye faithful, come with songs of triumph"). Carr's very 
noteworthy volume is undated, but a copy of it preserved in 
the library of the Pennsylvania Historical Society bears 
written testimony that it was published in 1805. 4 On the 

4 This important work by Benjamin Carr has for title-page: "A 
New Edition, with an Appendix of / Masses. Vespers, Litanies, / 
Hymns and Psalms, Anthems and Motetts. / Composed, selected and 
arranged for the use of the / Catholic Churches in the United States 
of America / Respectfully Dedicated by permission to the / Right 
Revd. John Carrol (sic), D. D., Bishop of Baltimore. / Sold by J. Carr, 
Baltimore; C Blake, Philadelphia; J. Hewitt, New York, and F. 
Mallet, Boston." I have transcribed the title from the copy in the 
library of the American Catholic Historical Society. No indication 
of date is anywhere given in this volume. The dedication to the 
"Right. Revd." John Carroll, "Bishop" of Baltimore, indicates clearly 
that the work appeared before the year 1808, when Carroll became 
Archbishop. The written testimony given' iby the copy in the library 
of the Pennsylvania Historical Society is doubtless correct. 



An Early Translation of the Adeste Fideles 295 

other hand, the Adeste Fideles is not given, either in Latin 
or in English, in John Aitken's " Compilation " for Cath- 
olic Choirs published in Philadelphia in 1787, with new edi- 
tions in 1 791 and 18 14, although the corresponding " Eas- 
ter Hymn" (a translation of the "O Filii et Filiae ", ap- 
parently taken from the Evening Oifke of Owr Lady pub- 
lished in London in 1748) is given in all three editions. It 
is very probable that the compiler of the Baltimore Catholic 
hymnal of 1807 was ignorant of Carr's volume, issued only 
two years earlier in the same city. Carr used a translation 
which is most likely of Protestant authorship, as a reference 
to it is found in Hobart's Festivals and Fasts ( 1804) to the 
effect that it had been frequently sung in Episcopalian ser- 
vices on Christmas Day. The compiler of the Catholic 
hymnal of 1807 appears to have desired to break away from 
this Episcopalian tradition, and to provide a Catholic ver- 
sion of the Catholic hymn to be sung to the traditional 
melody. 

(4) The Baltimore version of 1807 does not seem to be 
popular in the British Isles. Julian places it under the head- 
ing of " not in common use ". I am not familiar with 
Catholic hymnals published in Ireland, but it is perhaps sig- 
nificant of its unpopularity there that, despite its appearance 
in Father Young's volume of 1842, it is not given either in 
Father Gaynor's edition of St Patrick's Hymn Book or in 
The Armagh Hymnal, both of which were published in 
Dublin in 1906 and 191 5 respectively. In America, on the 
other hand, this version, unkempt though it be from a poet- 
ical standpoint, has been most widely used. It' is not freak- 
ish to found an argument on this double fact; for there 
seems to be an unconscious sentiment of natural affection 
for national hymnody. The French have clung with won- 
derful persistency to their Easter hymn, O Filii, although it 
is unliturgical and although the French appear to have been 
fully accustomed to sing the truly liturgical hymns in the 



296 American Catholic Historical Society 

original Latin text. Similarly, they cling to a French- Latin 
cento of the Adeste Fideles which is not the one used in 
English-speaking countries. Now the O Filii is certainly 
of French authorship. The Form of the Adeste sung in 
France is almost certainly of French authorship, while the 
form sung in English-speaking countries is almost certainly 
of English origin. If one may argue in a similar fashion 
concerning a translation of the Adeste, one would fairly 
assume that the Baltimore translation of 1807 is of Amer- 
ican origin, for its use has been confined almost exclusively 
to America. I could illustrate this assertion by a surpris- 
ingly long list of volumes published for Catholic use in 
America — a list that would almost give a complete narra- 
tive of our prolific editing of hymnals, This story must at 
some time form a chapter in the history of American Cath- 
olicity. While it is possible for us to do it, we should gather 
up the fragments of the story, lest they be lost. I have tried 
to preserve here one fragment of America's contribution to 
English Hymnody.